Poor Man's Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cookingby Elissa Altman
From James Beard Award-winning writer Elissa Altman comes a story that marries wit to warmth, and flavor to passion. Born and raised in New York to a food-phobic mother and food-fanatical father, Elissa was trained early on that fancy is always best. After a childhood spent dining everywhere from Le Pavillion to La Grenouille, she devoted her life to all/b>
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From James Beard Award-winning writer Elissa Altman comes a story that marries wit to warmth, and flavor to passion. Born and raised in New York to a food-phobic mother and food-fanatical father, Elissa was trained early on that fancy is always best. After a childhood spent dining everywhere from Le Pavillion to La Grenouille, she devoted her life to all things gastronomical, from the rare game birds she served at elaborate dinner parties in an apartment so tiny that guests couldn't turn around to the eight timbale molds she bought while working at Dean & DeLuca, just so she could make tall food.
But love does strange things to people, and when Elissa met Susan — a small-town Connecticut Yankee with parsimonious tendencies and a devotion to simple living — it would change Elissa's relationship with food, and the people who taught her about it, forever. With tender and often hilarious honesty (and 27 delicious recipes), Poor Man's Feast is a universal tale of finding sustenance and peace in a world of excess and inauthenticity, and shows us how all our stories are inextricably bound up with what, and how, we feed ourselves and those we love.
"Who wrote the book of love? Elissa Altman did. Poignant, funny and full of wisdom, every single page should be savored." - Tracey Ryder, founder and CEO of Edible Communities
"Poor Man's Feast is two overlapping love stories. It is a pleasure to get to live both at Altman's joyously, irreverently laid table." - Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal
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TO MY BEAUTIFUL PARENTS, RITA ELLIS HAMMER, WHO TAUGHT ME ABOUT SAFETY, AND THE LATE CY ALTMAN, WHO TAUGHT ME ABOUT FOOD.
AND TO MY DEAR SUSAN, WHO TEACHES ME EVERY DAY ABOUT LOVE.
There is poetry in food, kindness in the act of preparing it, and peace in sharing it.
There are gray areas: years ago, I’d heard about a restaurant where hundreds of samurai swords hang, point down, from the ceiling, directly over the heads of the diners while they eat.
This is not kind; this is sociopathic.
But in the act of preparing the most mundane grilled cheese—choosing the cheese, buttering the bread, warming the pan, pressing down the sandwich with the flat of your grandmother’s spatula so the cheese melts and the bread tightens and crackles and smooths like solid silk—lies an inherent and basic subconscious attention to detail that exists almost nowhere else in our lives, except in the small daily rituals that we all have. You squeeze your toothpaste onto your toothbrush in exactly the same manner every single morning and every single night. When you step out of the shower, you towel dry your hair before putting your makeup on. You shave one side of your face before the other, and that’s the way you’ve done it since you were in college. Mundane though they may be, these are the rituals that make us who we are. But they don’t necessarily make us kind. The act of preparing food for ourselves, and for others, does. And the act of conviviality, of sharing it with others—Marion Cunningham called it modern tribal fire—is what makes us human, whether it is tarted up and tortured into vertical excess, or nothing more than butter spread on a piece of bread.
I did not grow up in a home that valued conviviality; my mother and grandmother cooked our meals—plain but hearty, filling, sometimes delicious and sometimes immolated, they were not experimental or contrived until the mid-’70s, when my mother went on a fondue binge like the rest of middle-class America. Generally, we ate in silence drowned out by the presence of a small Zenith black-and-white television that sat, like a dinner guest, at the end of our table. While eating, we would watch Name That Tune!, my mother calling out between bites of limp, canned asparagus, “I can name it in three notes!” while my father sipped his Scotch and I picked at the flecks of onion in my meat loaf. After I was done, I climbed down from my chair and went into my bedroom, where I turned on my own television set and watched as reality and make-believe converged. There were fake families sitting around their own fake tables, eating fake dinners: there was the Brady Bunch, with its gay father and wing-nut maid and libidinous eldest son. There was the Partridge Family, with its catatonic little sister who played the tambourine like a methadone addict, and a lead singer who looked more like a lady than his sister. There were the simpering, unsmiling Waltons, with their fake farmhouse that always looked filthy, and a commie grandfather living upstairs in the attic.
“See him,” my grandmother Gaga once said to me, tapping her long “Cherries in the Snow”–shellacked fingernail on the round glass television screen after barging into my room with the last potato latke. “The man was a commie, blacklisted by McCarthy.” And then she slammed the door behind her.
They were all convivial, casserole-passing people, even though they didn’t actually exist; for me, the line between television family dinners and reality was blurred like a picture taken from a shaky camera, and when I saw in the news that Ellen Corby had had a stroke, all I could think of was who’s going to make biscuits for John-Boy now that Grandma can’t move her arms?
One night, after a silent dinner of what was marketed as chicken roll—chicken pieces that were deboned and then mechanically compressed into a loaf shape for easy slicing—I left the table where my parents were watching Let’s Make a Deal!, went into my room, and turned on a local television station. A Southern Prayer-a-Thon had interrupted regular broadcasting, so instead of seeing The Brady Bunch, there was a greasy, black-haired, slick-suited man marching across a stage, sobbing like a baby, and telling me that if only I’d call and offer money, that Jesus would give me whatever I wanted. I scribbled down the number with a chewed-on number-two pencil, crept across the hallway into my parents’ room, picked up the phone, and called.
A male voice answered with, “Hello! Have you taken Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?”
I cupped my hand around the mouthpiece and whispered, “No, I haven’t. I’m a Jew.”
I could hear him light up like a pinball machine, all the way from Mississippi.
“Well, do you want to?” he asked, hopefully.
“Not really,” I said.
“Then what can I do for you?” he asked, suddenly all business.
“You said that if I offered some money, then Jesus would give me what I want.”
“That’s right,” he replied. “Do you have money to send us?”
“I do. About six dollars.”
“And what do you want Jesus to help you with?”
“I want a big family and a big table where everyone sits down together, like the Waltons”—I thought for a minute—“but without the commie grandfather. And I want everyone to be happy.”
The man cleared his throat and promised to send me an envelope for the cash.
“You have a good night and God bless,” he said before he hung up.
I lusted after conviviality, and was drawn like a moth to the modern tribal fire; I yearned for the poetry that food writes. But I was also lured to the kitchen, to the standing there and the cooking and the serving and the feeding, because, I was certain, it would bring magic and happiness. Everything begins and ends for me in front of my stove, and if D-Day were to strike me down where I stood, where I stood would likely be right there, in my kitchen.
Ultimately, I found the poetry, and even the fire. But until I shared my kitchen with Susan, I hadn’t found the peace.
Bread and Cheese
In my family, we tend to overdo.
Like throwbacks from another time and another era, we blanket the commonplace with a heavy cloak of formality; we struggle to elevate the mundane to the extraordinary, the simple to the dazzling. Even if it isn’t.
One Sunday morning in my tiny midtown studio apartment, I brought in a bag of still-warm pumpernickel bagels, smoked salmon, and weighty containers of thick, scallion cream cheese for two college friends who were lying on an air mattress in the middle of my living room floor, sleeping off a Hendrick’s Gin hangover from a party the night before. I told my Aunt Sylvia later that day that I had “hosted a brunch.” It wasn’t exactly a lie.
Once, Aunt Sylvia—a comely, Ava Gardner lookalike now pushing ninety-three—had waited for her fifteen-year-old granddaughter to return from a neighborhood party, unaccountably attended by a group of leather-jacketed hooligans carrying travel bongs in their knapsacks.
“Did any of the nice young gentlemen ask you to dance?” she asked her granddaughter the next morning.
“Yes, Grandma,” Rebecca answered, rolling her eyes, “they did. Right after they threw up on my shoes.”
In my family, nice is perfectly fine. But fancy is always much better, and what we seem, genetically, to aspire to. My cousin Eleanor once cooked Thanksgiving dinner out of The French Laundry Cookbook, stopping just short of Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls because she didn’t have time to make a sabayon of pearl tapioca before the guests showed up. That same year, Susan made her Thanksgiving recipes from a cookbook that her mother assembled, chapter by chapter, in 1959, with S&H Green Stamps. It involved a green bean casserole with the little crispy fried onions on top.
During holidays, my family likes to dress up in outfits, like one might for an early-twentieth-century costume party involving handheld masks on sticks, formal bowing, and games of chance. Instead of picking out plain, normal clothes to wear to family functions—a skirt, a favorite sweater, maybe a brooch—we generally like to assemble in well-considered, thematic get-ups that, barring an abrupt conversion to Presbyterianism, we might not otherwise ever be seen in at any other time of year, like bright-red corduroy trousers and plaid sport coats, or hacking jackets with elbow patches that imply we will be running with the hounds just as soon as sherry hour is over.
Susan’s family also dresses up in outfits, which usually include velvet pants bought at a church rummage sale in 1968, and spangle-embellished slip-ons acquired during the G. Fox after-Christmas sale, right before the store went out of business in 1982. Everyone always looks very nice.
In my family, we aim for the swank and the rococo, as if this way of living offers some sort of inherent security and protection from the plebian, the dangerous, and the more unpredictable parts of life.
* * *
On the Thanksgiving before I met Susan, my cousins and I were dressed in Scottish tweeds and tartans, cashmere and velvet, each of us straining our voices to be heard over the din and past the array of drained bottles of Sinskey Pinot Noir and Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay so oaky and rich that it poured like thick maple syrup on pancakes. The hyperextended, French Provincial table had been opened up using every available leaf; there were twenty of us, growing louder and more emphatic with every cut-crystal goblet of wine drunk. Being an eavesdropper at one of our dinners would have been like watching a master weaver at a treadle loom—the conversation threads dipped and bobbed and passed in and out of significance while we gesticulated for impact, the noise growing so shrill that you couldn’t actually hear what was being said anymore. The rare, single malt Scotches—the Laphroaig and the Lagavulin—and the aged Armagnac and the treacle-smooth Hennessy had just been plunked down on the table with eight heavy Waterford snifters. Our Chanukah gifts were passed around to the sighs of ooh and aah, when I started to squirm and look at my watch. I wanted to get home, back to the city, back to my tiny apartment on Fifty-Seventh Street.
Leaving in haste wouldn’t have caused much of an uproar, since I saw my family a lot back then, more than just at Thanksgiving (which doubled as Chanukah, which doubled as our winter birthdays celebration) and Passover (which doubled as our spring and summer birthdays celebration), but also on group vacations to Greece and Turkey, Aspen, and Captiva. In the warmer weather, there were always family golf outings and tournaments at the country club on Long Island, and Father’s Day tennis matches followed by barbecues. If we’d worn white and had a country house in Hyannis and tossed a football around after eating piles of cold fried chicken prepared by a cherished family cook, you might have mistaken us for a kind of wannabe Kennedys. Still, it was hard to envision my father—a short, corpulent man with tiny legs and a small Santa belly, who’d had two coronary bypasses and both his carotid arteries roto-rootered by the time he was seventy—tackling my tall and strapping Uncle Marvin, an often dour and serious architect and former captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, whose platoon had chased the Nazis east right after the Allied landings, and who never once in his adult life was seen wearing anything less casual than a tie, a pressed olive-green business shirt, and cordovan wingtips.
But Thanksgiving is still Thanksgiving, and if I had wanted to leave on the early side that night—living in the city, I had no car and depended upon my father to drive me home from my cousin’s house on Long Island—I’d have to at least explain why. And at that point, the why—the fact of Susan—was still very much my secret.
After hours of sitting around and talking over each other and drinking hundred-dollar Scotch, my father and his longtime companion, Shirley, dropped me off in Manhattan. Shirley was a near-fanatical vegetarian and a therapist. She typically spent every family holiday in deep conversation with one cousin or another whom she would lovingly shrink while simultaneously spearing the dark meat on my father’s plate when his head was turned, and moving it to her own, where it would be forgotten. Usually, he wouldn’t notice until, on the ride back into Manhattan, he’d announce that he was inexplicably hungry again. If Shirley hadn’t been in the car with us, he would have made a detour to Katz’s to pick up a corned beef on rye, its edges laced in wide swaths of soft, ivory fat, and eaten it while driving me home up Third Avenue, carefully wiping any trace of putative deli mustard off the brown vinyl dashboard with the Armor-All wipes he kept in the glove compartment.
“Our secret,” he’d say to me, looking over from the driver’s seat, the long, angry, still-pink scar from his heart surgery peeking out of the top of his shirt. “Right, honey?”
* * *
That night, my father helped me upstairs and into my apartment, carrying a long, white disintegrating cardboard box emblazoned with the name “S. KLEIN,” while Shirley waited outside in my father’s double-parked sedan. The box, which my Aunt Sylvia had hung on to for the thirty years since the store’s demise, buckled under the weight of consolidated gifts: Aunt Sylvia, who always felt that a woman could never have too many black purses, had given me an exact duplicate of the one she’d given me the year before, with a tiny mirror embedded into the top flap, making the reapplication of lipstick during my many dates a breeze. My cousin Peter, a classical pianist and a voracious reader with a penchant for esoteric books on impenetrable subjects and the unfailing belief that everyone loves them as much as he does, had given me a four-volume science-fiction mystery involving a sixteenth-century British sailor and the vessel that was named for a mysterious Egyptian princess deity/space-being bearing a striking resemblance to the sailor’s first, long-dead wife. Peter’s sister, Lois, the only other serious cook in the family and the host of our holiday dinners, gave me a set of cookbooks, which assumed that the reader owned a home foamer and a kitchen blowtorch. I owned both.
Three hours away, Susan was spending her first holiday back in Connecticut as a single woman, living alone in a small house in a rural area, deep in the middle of nowhere in a town of 3,500 that had only recently gotten its first stoplight. During the previous Thanksgiving, she told me in an email one night, she’d made a special Black Spanish Heritage turkey for herself, for Jennifer—her ex-girlfriend with whom she’d recently broken up after eight years—and two of their friends, in an attempt to shoehorn joy and conviviality into the sad occasion of what she knew would be their last holiday together. There was the fancy bird, which wound up being tough, stringy, and barely edible, wearing those little frilly white paper booties at the end of its drumsticks, looking like a fullback dressed in bobby socks. It sang of the holiday season in the most contrived of ways, and yielded roughly two pounds of gristly leftovers that were still sitting in her freezer as she wrote to me. There was the fancy sweet-and-sour red cabbage. There was the fancy flaming bourbon pumpkin pie and the special runny cheeses and the delicate, crumbly espresso biscuits. But fancy couldn’t rescue them—Susan and Jennifer. There was the end of a long relationship gone awry, tarted up in the culinary excess of the season by someone who still cared enough to feed the person she was saying goodbye to, punctuating the end of their life together like a bitter grape.
* * *
It had been more than a month since Susan had first responded, along with 211 other women, to my posting on a popular dating site—my online plea for a relatively normal relationship with a relatively normal person who actually liked food; who wasn’t threatened by it, wasn’t allergic to it, and was genuinely interested in it—and we still hadn’t met, or even seen pictures of each other. I did know some key facts: that she was fanatical about dogs, and had a curly-coated retriever named MacGillicuddy, who attracted and then carried all manner of hiking trail dross in her thick, Persian lamb–like coat, and who, when she shook her head, launched strings of magnetic drool onto anything that was nearby. Susan also admitted to being almost freakishly attached to an ancient edition of Larousse Gastronomique, and lulled herself to sleep every night by reading her way, entry by entry, through the disintegrating, threadbare volume—MERE DE SOLE, MERE GOUTTE, MERGA, MERINGUE, MEROU—that she’d find, the next morning, lying open on her chest. She loved Jacqueline du Pré and Emmylou Harris and Hazel Dickens and Patti Smith equally. Raised in a devout Roman Catholic home, she had profound attractions both to fourteenth-century ecclesiastical art and Tibetan mandalas. She had been a dedicated film photographer as a graduate student at the School of Visual Arts in the late 1970s, in love with the work of Diane Arbus and André Kertész, but hadn’t touched her camera in ages. She hated cilantro but adored beets and fresh rhubarb and Jean Anderson, whose Doubleday Cookbook she read like the Bible and refused to throw out even after she left it out in the rain one late-summer night, which resulted in black, quarter-size splotches of mold sealing the pages of the beef chapter together like meat glue. She lusted after old and vintage, and loathed new and sleek; she prized her long-dead uncle’s jar of 1950s swizzle sticks that now sat on her bar and stirred the small Sapphire Gin Gibson she’d make herself on Saturday evenings when she was home. She preferred tag sales to the fake, farmhouse-chic, must-have excess of gourmet kitchen supply stores that made her wince with every catalog delivery, that demanded she own a two-hundred-dollar cast-iron jalapeño roaster. But hers wasn’t the prepackaged, pseudo-cozy, vintage affectation that was just beginning to afflict most of flannel-shirted Brooklyn and its young residents who were turning to pickling and jamming instead of clubbing and doing Ecstasy. Susan came by it honestly, and the two dozen 1920s vintage blue Ball canning jars in which she stored her beans and grains and flours didn’t come from an auction won on eBay; they had belonged to her grandmother, who had fed her family out of them through the Depression. And during the previous autumn, her mother unearthed a dusty 1920s Roseville bowl for seventy-five cents at her neighbor’s garage sale, and thought for certain that she’d been had.
That night, after my father dropped me off and I changed out of my holiday velvet and cashmere outfit, I logged on to my computer and there was a long message waiting for me, about Susan’s mother showing up at her house that night with a small wooden bookcase that she’d just paid a neighbor five dollars for, unaware that it was stamped STICKLEY on the bottom, and worth about five hundred dollars more.
“I served my mother and Auntie Et Thanksgiving dinner off tag-sale TV trays in my den tonight,” she went on. “They’re very nice. They have eagles on them. They were three bucks.”
I hit REPLY.
“Auntie Et? You actually have an Auntie Et? Are you living in Kansas? Is there a storm a-comin’?”
“That was Auntie EM,” she responded. “Et is short for Ethel, but she’s been Et forever. There’s also Aunt Phyllis, Aunt Sally, and Aunt Mary, who’s married to Uncle Jim, who’s a skirt chaser. He’s almost ninety.”
My mind wandered back to Aunt Sylvia, who people in their eighties still called Aunt Sylvia, and who I believed, until I was eighteen, woke up each and every morning with her hair teased and her makeup done by some mysterious midnight makeup entity, while she slept soundly.
But eating Thanksgiving dinner off of eagle-bedecked, three-dollar tag-sale television trays with her Yankee mother and someone named Auntie Et was not something I was accustomed to hearing about from a person with whom I was considering having a romantic alignment, even though we hadn’t even set eyes on each other.
It all felt a little too small-town.
A little too Grammy Hall Hates Jews.
* * *
Seconds after she sent her email, Susan pinged, and our relationship graduated to Instant Messenger.
“How was your dinner?” she asked.
“It was fancy,” I wrote.
My cousin, I told her, had twenty for dinner and managed to make a delicious, giblet-less, dripping-less turkey gravy out of a Sauce Espagnole that she had started preparing three days before the holiday. We had gone through half a case of Sinskey Pinot Noir, at least one bottle of Armagnac, and I’d been certain that my Aunt Sylvia, in typical fashion, had tried to fix me up with a guy who was a ringer for Davy Crockett. Dessert, I added, was a pumpkin flan dusted with crushed candied violets.
“Wait, your aunt tried to fix you up? I thought you were out to your family.”
“I am,” I typed. “But she would rather I be in, so she ignores the fact that the last man I brought home ten years ago was gayer than Liberace.”
“So your aunt just sprung this guy on you?”
Although this man who looked like Davy Crockett was, it turned out, mercifully meant for one of my younger cousins, my aunt’s fervent desire to “marry me off” had become something of family lore. Some people had holiday traditions involving paper-turkey centerpieces, or menorahs with flickering orange lightbulbs, or white aluminum Christmas trees, or bowling ball–heavy matzo balls made from Streit’s mix. But our holiday meals always coincided with the repeated appearance of someone I, after having kismet forced upon me like a too-small pump, started to call The Strange Man.
For years, wherever I was, The Strange Man was sure to follow: two of them showed up on separate occasions while I was visiting cousins in Virginia. One showed up at a shiva call that my aunt insisted I pay with her, despite the fact that I had absolutely no idea who the deceased was. Even on the day of her own husband’s funeral, my aunt—her eyes swollen and red from crying over the loss of her beloved—mustered enough energy to inform me that a gentleman she wanted me to meet was going to be bringing his mother, one of my aunt’s bridge partners, to pay a condolence call.
“They say he was arrested for spousal abuse,” Aunt Sylvia whispered, leaning around her heavy walnut bedroom door while all of my cousins napped in neighboring rooms. “But I don’t believe it.”
* * *
Susan’s holiday dinner was more benign than ours, she said.
“I made my mother and Auntie Et vodka tonics, we had a small roast with gravy that I made from pan drippings, canned cranberry sauce, and some Big Italian Lady,” she wrote.
“A roast beef?” I asked.
“A nice roast beef,” she replied.
“Why not turkey?”
“Who honestly likes turkey? No one I know. But the ladies love roast beef, so that’s what I made—and I sent them home with loaves of Levy’s rye bread and enough meat to make sandwiches tomorrow.”
Roast beef did not mean Thanksgiving to me; it meant stately English Sunday dinners and heavy, crested family silver. I remembered back to the days when I was a semester student at Caius College, Cambridge, and forty-foot tables creaked beneath the ancient dining room rafters, laden with platters of bloody, thick-sliced meat and horseradish sauce, and each place setting glittered with more utensils than the average American student knew what to do with. Years later, I would make a small Sunday dinner for an English-themed Christmas dinner party, doing absolutely nothing to my prime standing rump roast for four but massaging it with imported sel gris that cost as much as a Maine lobster. Three-quarters of the meat stood, looking like the roast beast in the Grinch, in my refrigerator until New Year’s, left over and sad, until Madeleine, a Parisian friend, scoffed at me.
“Go out and get some tomatoes and onions, and make a miroton,” she said, and I did; layered in a shallow baking dish between the vegetables, the leftover meat went from good to glorious and, in my mind, the only reason to ever make roast beef again.
“But what about tradition?” I wrote to Susan.
“Who cares about it, if we’re together?”
“And the canned cranberry sauce? Like with the ridges?”
“That’s right,” she answered. “They love it.”
“And Big Italian Lady—”
“Yup,” she typed.
“Okay,” I said. “What exactly is Big Italian Lady?”
“A gigantic bottle of Sangiovese with a Big Italian Lady in a red babushka and giant gold hoop earrings on the label. It’s nine dollars.”
I stared at the screen.
“Exactly how cheap are you?” was what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t bring myself to type it. So I kept my mouth shut, and when it became clear to both of us that the other was not one of the Manson Girls and likely to show up for our first date with a shaven head and an X carved into her forehead, we decided to meet.
* * *
Three months. It took that long. A woman given to deep introspection and constitutional reticence, Susan worried that I’d find her too quiet. I worried that she’d find me a loudmouth New Yorker. When we eventually decided she’d come into the city rather than have me travel with the Donner Party up to the outer reaches of Connecticut, where no one would ever think to look if I went missing, I planned to make brunch reservations at La Goulue on the Upper East Side, where fashionable New Yorkers used to go to pretend they were French, where a simple steak tartare might arrive along with a demitasse of Beluga caviar instead of French fries, and where I always wore my black suede Gucci loafers without socks.
“Always let your date choose the place,” my father once instructed me before I left for college. “It’ll let you off the hook if the food stinks,” he said, “and it’ll make him feel more like he’s in control.”
Of course, him wound up being a her, but I still let her pick, since she was the one who was going to be driving three hours in each direction. And on a bone-chilling, frigid Saturday afternoon, I stood waiting for her in the lobby of the Museum of the Moving Image, dressed in a fancy yellow Bogner ski jacket and Vuarnets and banana-yellow Timberland boots, like I was about to leave for Sun Valley. Susan loped in, tall and thin, wearing a slouchy, long boucle Japanese wool coat cut like a 1930s bathrobe. She pulled her steel-gray fleece headband off as she walked over to me, smiling with the greenest, warmest eyes I’d ever seen; we linked arms and walked into the theater, the only ones there, to watch an endless reel of early I Love Lucy episodes, one after the next after the next. It was late afternoon when we finally left; we took a cab downtown to the divey Christine’s Polish Kitchen in the East Village, where we ate vast, diner-size platters of pierogi, boiled kielbasa, fried eggs, and toast, brought to us on heavyweight, chipped Buffalo china. Svetlana, our young, blonde waitress with braids tied up around her ears like Princess Leia headphones, didn’t rush us, and refilled cups of lukewarm, weak coffee. She smiled and walked away when Susan touched a tiny scar on the top of my right hand, below the base of my middle finger. At less than half an inch long and the result of a freak accident when I was twelve, no one had ever noticed it before.
“Maybe they just weren’t looking for the details,” she said, smiling, while an electric shock buzzed inside my kneecaps.
Four hours later, I walked Susan to her car, stopping at an old-fashioned Italian market on First Avenue; it smelled armpit-strong and rank like the inside of a moldy cave, and we both picked up loaves of crusty semolina bread speckled with sesame seeds, and wedges of cheese for our separate dinners alone—plain Saracino table cheese for her, Pecorino Toscano for me.
Bread and cheese—the swipe of musky, oozy Epoisses across a roughly torn baguette end; a slice of bitterly pungent sheep’s milk Roncal oozing and dripping over the edges of toasted peasant bread set under a broiler—is the most elemental, lascivious meal in the world, second only to buttered toast. I had learned this years before, in the high-food 1980s, when, too tired to cook one night after working at Dean & DeLuca, I brought home a short demi-baguette and a square of runny, soft Taleggio so stinky it made my cats howl. I climbed the stairs to my Chelsea apartment, sat down on the floor with a glass of cheap Albariño, and the cheese and bread on a scuffed cutting board, and ate dinner. My ex-girlfriend came home later that night and found me asleep on the couch, crumbs on my chest, a Cheshire Cat smile on my face, like I’d had the best sex of my life.
“Hey,” she whispered, shaking me awake. “Do you need a cigarette?”
That’s what bread and cheese still does for me, and in the face of trout foam and twenty-four-hour, sous-vided eggs and black-market caviar and thousand-dollar Piemontese truffles and eating steak tartare while wearing Gucci loafers, it’s easy to forget.
* * *
We stood on the busy sidewalk in the dusky freezing evening, staring over each other’s shoulders uncomfortably. People careened past us in the gray and black blur that is winter in Manhattan.
“So can I see you again next weekend? We could cook,” Susan said, squinting at something uptown.
“I think so,” I replied, trying to be cool, sweating through my black cashmere turtleneck, completely unaware of the toothbrush that was lurking at the bottom of the tiny Italian leather knapsack she had slung over one arm.
She hugged me, and I let her. And then I walked back to my apartment—all the way up to Fifty-Seventh Street—and planned an elaborate menu for the following weekend, which could not arrive soon enough.
“Promise me you won’t do anything fancy,” she said when she got home, calling to say she’d arrived safely and was about to pour herself a small glass of Chianti and settle in on the couch with her dog, her Larousse, her bread, and her cheese.
“I’ll try,” I assured her.
SIMPLE SUNDAY ROAST BEEF
Regardless of tradition or holiday, there really is no point in going to the trouble of wrestling with a turkey if: a) you don’t actually like turkey, and b) it’s only going to be a few of you at the table. Who really wants to spend hours brining and massaging, and jamming their butter-smeared hands up an ill-tempered bird’s backside only to have it still be bone-dry and planning to take up residence in the back of your freezer for a year? Susan’s decision to make a simple roast beef for Thanksgiving, rubbed with nothing more than salt and pepper and then cooked to rosy perfection, was a brilliant one, and spoke to her love of all things elemental.
Serves 4, with leftovers
One 4 – to 5-pound boneless sirloin roast, tied in 1-inch intervals
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• Place the roast on a platter, drape it loosely with aluminum foil, and let it rest until it comes to room temperature, two or three hours. Twenty minutes prior to cooking, preheat the oven to 500˚F.
• In a small bowl, combine the salt and pepper, and massage it all over the roast. Place the roast in a large cast-iron skillet or medium roasting pan, and slide it into the oven.
• Roast undisturbed for 20 minutes; then immediately decrease the heat to 300˚F, and continue to cook for 20 minutes per pound, without basting, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the meat registers 130˚F.
• Remove the roast to a cutting board, tent it loosely with foil, and let it rest for 15 minutes before carving it into thin slices. Serve on warm plates with grainy mustard and cornichons.
Traditionally made with leftovers from a pot au feu—boiled beef with vegetables—miroton is reason enough to bring a large piece of meat into your house. Forget about the ubiquitous sandwiches, and instead layer leftover sliced beef in a shallow casserole or skillet along with jammy, cooked-down onions, beef broth, tomato, and bread crumbs; the result is a spectacular nod to country French leftover know-how.
1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups sweet onions, cut into rings
1 teaspoon unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup prepared beef broth
4 to 5 ounces thinly sliced leftover roast beef
1 medium tomato, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
• In a large skillet set over medium heat, warm the olive oil until it begins to shimmer, and add the onions to the pan all at once. Cook slowly, stirring frequently, until they have turned a dark caramel brown, about 15 minutes.
• Add the flour and broth to the pan, stirring well, and continue to cook until the mixture has thickened to a paste. Remove from the heat and set aside.
• Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Lightly grease a shallow ovenproof gratin dish.
• Ladle a tablespoon of the onion mixture in the gratin dish, spreading it uniformly over the bottom of the dish. Top the onions with a layer of meat, tearing the pieces if necessary to fit into the pan, and then top with a layer of tomatoes. Repeat the process as though you were building a lasagna, ending with the tomatoes.
• Using the back of a serving spoon, press down gently but firmly on the gratin to bring some of its liquid to the surface. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs and season with salt and pepper. Bake until the gratin begins to bubble and ooze, and the top goes golden brown, about 30 minutes.
• Serve warm, with rounds of garlic-rubbed toast and a green salad.
When Susan and I met, I was working in SoHo as the food and entertainment editor at a doomed high-visibility dot-com, in a tall-windowed, light-splashed loft space so cramped—there were twenty of us sharing it—that one of my office mates regularly crawled under her desk in order to speak to her boyfriend in private. One day, while walking over to the Xerox machine, I tripped over her hyperextended legs, which were sticking out from beneath her chair like the striped ones belonging to the Wicked Witch of the East moments before they shriveled up like garden slugs sprinkled with salt.
The loft was directly across the street from Dean & DeLuca, where, fifteen years earlier, in the late 1980s, I had been an associate in the cookbook department. At that time, the city was in the throes of an art boom the likes of which hadn’t been seen in over thirty years. It was also in the throes of a drug boom—they often travel hand in hand—and in SoHo circles, those two booms, aided by piles of cash, made for a cataclysmic social explosion of epic proportion. So while my days would be spent standing at the back of the store, leaning against an immense pillar in the shadow of the wall-mounted eight-point buck that hung above Joel Dean’s skylight-lit desk, and helping earnestly befuddled Yohji Yamamoto–clad customers choose what Italian cookbook to buy—Giuliano Bugialli or Marcella Hazan or Elizabeth David—because they were really getting into agnoletti, I was also frequently called upon to silently trail some of our more famous drug-addled patrons, like Jean-Michel Basquiat, just to make sure he didn’t lose his balance while buying bags of high-end gummy bears.
My first day on the job, I blew through the front door at nine on the dot, arriving at the store dressed from head to toe in black—black turtleneck, black leggings, tall flat black boots made of soft leather that scrunched down around my ankles—when a slight, balding man called out to me from behind the counter.
“Yoo-hooo, gorgeous. You new?”
“Me?” I turned around.
“Yes, you! Are we applying for the rocket scientist job today, honey?” he said, laughing. “Taste this and tell me what you think.”
He leaned far over the counter and handed me the end of a baguette dripping with bright-orange marinara sauce that had been bubbling away in a twenty-quart stockpot over a small single propane burner set up on the fifteen-foot work island behind the counter.
“Oh, my god!” I gasped, my mouth full. The sauce was explosively flavorful and sweet and outclassed anything I’d ever slaved over for hours in my own kitchen.
“Does it need anything? Salt?” the man asked.
“Nothing,” I swooned, “nothing at all—it’s incredible!”
“Four ingredients,” he barked, holding up four fingers of his right hand. “I’ll show you how. My name is Eric.” He wiped his hand on his apron and reached across the counter. “You need to get downstairs before The Boys show up or they’ll kill us both.”
The Boys—Giorgio DeLuca, Joel Dean, and Jack Ceglic (Jack was Joel’s longtime partner, and creator of the gorgeous white-on-white Dean & DeLuca minimalist aesthetic, who could be seen regularly sashaying around the store with a Pekingese on each arm)—were constantly in and out, arranging and rearranging shelves, buying taxidermied grouse in mid-flight to use as Christmas displays, and testing staff members’ off-the-cuff knowledge of obscure cooking processes, lest a customer ever, on the off chance, ask them about it. In the back of the store stood an eight-foot-by-four-foot metal Metro shelving table upon which sat approximately forty cream-colored Hall ceramic crocks containing every conceivable cooking implement invented since the late 1800s: there were larding needles and tiny, perforated metal caper spoons so you could lift the pungent nuggets out of their brine and not remove any of the precious liquid; there were French can openers and lemon zesters, wooden citrus reamers and white-handled oyster knives, wire egg separators and single-blade mezzalunas, melon ballers and clam shuckers, French bread lames, black cast-iron flame tamers, escargot tongs, stainless truffle shavers, mesh China caps, Swiss garlic presses, Italian salt mills, nonswivel peelers meant specifically for thick-skinned root vegetables, and chestnut knives.
At three o’clock on my first day of work, one of The Boys came straight to the back of the store, eyed me from head to toe through tiny round wire Oliver Peoples glasses, said “nice boots,” and then grabbed a larding needle and waved it around like Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.
“Quick!” he shouted, like a Marine drill sergeant. “What’s this?”
“Umm,” I stuttered.
“Larding needle. Quick! How do you use it?”
“Well,” I considered, thoughtfully, “I think you probably put the fat in here, and insert—”
“Not fast enough,” he barked, cutting me off. “What’s this?” he asked, pulling a wire egg separator out of a crock on the other side of the table.
“A round whisk,” I answered confidently.
“Wrong!” he roared, shaking his head. “We’re going to do this again tomorrow—and I want you to learn what every single tool does, and exactly how it works—it has to be on the tip of your tongue,” he instructed, snapping his fingers, just inches from the tip of my nose. And then he marched away.
That first morning, Eric-the-sauce-maker directed me downstairs to punch the time clock, tie on my apron, and carry back upstairs the stacks of books that had arrived in a shipment the day before. At ten, the doors swung open for business, and I took my place, leaning against the enormous pillar in the very back of the store, and nervously waited for customers. Five minutes later, David Lynch, Kyle MacLachlan, and Isabella Rossellini—she, wearing pearl-gray sweatpants and sweatshirt and pushing a red-cheeked, doe-eyed baby in a striped Italian stroller—came in and did their grocery shopping. These were the days of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, and regardless of how jaded my colleagues at the store had become, serving everyone from Joel Grey to John Kennedy Jr., when this triptych ambled into the store, you could hear silent gasps. As they passed the meat counter, Michael, the cute charcuterie guy who was a Blue Velvet fanatic, held a round plastic deli container over his nose like an oxygen mask and snorted loudly, like Dorothy Vallens and Frank Booth in the lurid, suburban underbelly of Lumberton.
“They’re in all the time,” Eric whispered to me. “Watch what they buy—it’s fascinating.”
Dean & DeLuca, to some people, was just another grocery store stuck in the shoulder-padded, cocaine-addled abyss that was the moneyed, AIDS-riddled mass of contradictions called 1980s SoHo. Walk up and down Prince Street, Spring Street, Broome, West Broadway, Grand—each street was lined with galleries packed with leggy Italian, black-clad models dying for a glimpse of Mary Boone and Leo Castelli, Cindy Sherman and Eric Fischl, and a chance to land in the pages of Ingrid Sischy’s Interview magazine. Each street was lined with glaring white, minimalist restaurants decorated with a single three-foot display of flowers and twigs. Each street was decorated with art illegally painted on city property in the middle of the night, showcasing a frustrated, apoplectic Reagan under the words Silence=Death. In the SoHo of the go-go 1980s, there was money everywhere, and there was food, and art, and drugs. And, giving not a fat rat’s ass about what was in someone’s bank account, or up their noses, or in their stomachs, there was AIDs that, five years after I left my job at the store, had killed more than half the male employees, including Eric, who was collateral damage: after finding a mottled purple splotch the size of a dime on his neck while he was shaving one brilliant spring morning in his Hudson Street bathroom—it was Kaposi’s sarcoma—he hanged himself.
But step inside Dean & DeLuca on any sunny day in 1988, and everything was good, and luminous, and clean. We sold tomatoes for ten dollars a pound; prenatally tiny Brussels sprouts for eight dollars a pound; fresh morels for thirty-nine dollars a pound; fiddlehead ferns that no one had any idea what the hell to do with for thirty dollars a pound; plus two-hundred-dollar electric copper polenta makers that our import director, Carlo, had brought to us from a buying trip to Parma; immense jars of voluptuous San Remo oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (the culinary plague of the 1980s first introduced to the United States from Italy by Dean & DeLuca) for sixty dollars; loaves of sourdough and pain de mie for eight dollars; English mustard for fifteen dollars; Piemontese truffles for a hundred dollars an ounce; and candied violets for fifteen dollars a quarter-pound, which we kept stocked specifically for a customer who would come in once a week with her Norwich terrier, Richard, tucked under her arm, buy a bag, and feed them to the matted dog while he sat perched on Joel Dean’s desk underneath the dazed, marble-eyed head of the buck, peering down from above at the bizarre world beneath him.
Locals like Lynch, MacLachlan, and Rossellini would walk up and down the two long aisles opposite the refrigerated case filled with cheeses and charcuterie from all over Italy and France, and shop a few times a week, like we were their neighborhood mega-mart. That first night, I went home, back to Julie, my then-girlfriend, and our white brick-walled Chelsea apartment toting a small white D&D shopping bag containing a smoked chicken breast, a pound of Martelli penne, a peppered pyramid of Coach Farms goat cheese, a handful of cippoline, and the smallest jar of sun-dried tomatoes I could afford on an eighteen-thousand-a-year salary; with my store discount, it came to nearly forty bucks.
“What the hell are you going to make with that?” Julie asked, stretching her hamstrings after a fourteen-hour day running around with the rest of the residents at St. Vincent’s. I was always coming home to find my aerobics-freak girlfriend, who took Jane Fonda’s workout video a little too seriously, stretched out in the middle of the living room floor, still wearing her stethoscope and white coat, and contorting herself into completely unnatural and inhuman positions.
“Pasta,” I replied. “With goat cheese, onions, sliced smoked chicken, and sun-dried tomatoes.”
What People are Saying About This
“A wild ride with biting highs, withering lows, and tremendous wit and humor...A beautiful story.”—Deborah Madison, author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
“Sometimes heartbreaking, often hilarious, this is one of the finest food memoirs of recent years.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Delightful . . . A wealth of food tales about foodies and food phobics, cooks and kitchen disasters, cooking successes and failures—all in clear, pleasing prose . . . Poor Man’s Feast deserves a place on the shelf with the finest food writers.”—New York Journal of Books
“[Altman] artfully merges relationship narrative, personal history, and food memoir in this satisfying book. . . . Luminous writing brings many stories small and large to feed the heart.”—Publishers Weekly
“[Told] with her delicious trademark blend of humor, love, and dedication to simplicity in life and, of course, in food.”—Portland Monthly
Meet the Author
"...a brave, generous story about family, food, and finding the way home." -Molly Wizenberg, author of A Homemade Life
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Don't know where the word "poor" in the title came from because this enthusiastic cook buys every gadget in the cooking department. It has some interesting recipes, but way more work than I want!